wo years ago when he almost single-handedly pushed a then merely awesome Golden State Warriors team to a sixth game in the NBA finals, LeBron James found himself at the post-match conference, mic in hand, pondering whether he’d have been better off if his Cleveland Cavaliers hadn’t reached the finals at all.
It was his fifth straight season playing into June, his second straight finishing runner-up. For all the ridiculously- demanding schedules there are now in world team sport – rugby players touring into July, reporting for preseason in August – the NBA’s is particularly gruelling with its Denver one night, Detroit the next itinerary. James by this point had been on that treadmill, that plane for 12 years. As well as playing on average 75 regular-season games a year, a typical season for him such as this particular 2014-2015 campaign lasted a full two months longer than for a player whose team had failed to reach the play-offs.
By once again exerting so much of himself to extend the Cavaliers’ season but ultimately falling short, he had arguably already compromised his chances of ultimate success the following season. By prolonging the Cavs’ year, he was potentially curtailing the length of his career.
What’s more, instead of adding to his legacy, another Finals appearance had possibly diminished it, at least in the eyes of his considerably-sized army of critics. Although no individual player in the history of the NBA finals had played so well without ending up on the winning side, although he had averaged an astonishing 38 points, 13 rebounds and 9 assists a game, the crudest statistic of the lot remained: his Cavs, injury-depleted as they were, had lost the series 2-4 to the Warriors, meaning his record was then 2-4 in NBA finals.
As James mused on the age-old philosophical question whether the journey had been something to savour though he and his team had failed to reach their destination, his initial inclination was that it wasn’t.
Twice in his career he had failed to make the play-offs, his first two years in the NBA. The pain of missing out on the play-offs was negligible compared to the devastation that followed each of his four finals losses.
“I’m almost starting to [think] I’d rather not even make the play-offs than to lose in the finals. It would hurt a lot easier if I just didn’t make the play-offs and I didn’t have a shot at it.”
Upon further reflection though, James quickly revised his viewpoint. “Then I look back and I start thinking about how much fun it is to compete during the play-offs and the first round, the second round and the Eastern Conference finals.
“If I’m lucky enough to get here again, it will be fun to do it.”
James would get back there again in 2016 as he’d produce probably the greatest individual finals performance ever to bring the first championship in 52 years to his beloved Cleveland.
Now though it appears as if sometime over the next week he’ll be once again looking out at the world’s media in the wake of another finals loss.
With Kevin Durant now in their ranks, the Warriors are even more loaded than the Cavs, more loaded than they were in 2015 and 2016, more loaded and accomplished than probably any team in NBA history.
In truth, it would be something of an achievement for James and the Cavaliers to avoid being swept. Outright victory seems impossible, even for James. And even, if he were in his prime, playing in James’s place, beyond one Michael Jordan.
Since James’s heroics in last year’s finals, comparisons with Jordan has escalated to the point it has come a legitimate question: could James, at least someday, be as good as or even greater than Jordan?
There’s not a day it isn’t raised in some form or another among the biggest American sports talks shows and inevitably the biggest knock against James will surface. Jordan’s record in the finals was unblemished, going 6-0. James, though he has won three finals, has already lost four. Case closed.
As popular as that argument is, it is, of course, a highly flawed one to the point of being ridiculous. It’s as if Jordan’s greatness would have been the lesser for winning another couple of Eastern Conference titles – say, getting over the hump that was his nemesis, the Detroit Pistons, that bit earlier in years like 1988 and 1989 – but not been yet quite ready or wise enough in the finals for the LA Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
As if James would have been better off not blitzing another proud champion Pistons team in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals at just 22 before his severely-limited Cavs met a San Antonio Spurs team at the peak of their powers.
As if three gold medals and no silver is better than three gold and four silver.
An undeniable blemish on James’s resume is his performance – or underperformance – in the 2011 NBA finals against the Dallas Mavericks in his first season with the Miami Heat. Even his greatest apologist and defender, Nick Wright, has described it as the greatest underperformance of a great player on the NBA finals stage.
His most ardent critic, Skip Bayless - America’s answer to Eamon Dunphy with a similar flair for brash pronouncements and showbiz, baby -has presented it as Exhibit A in his thesis that James does not possess what he terms the “clutch gene”.
For all the sport he knows and has observed through the years though, Bayless is uninformed in thinking there is such a thing as a “clutch gene” as if it’s something you’re either born with or not. At some stage, everything is learned.
James had to learn in the harshest and most public of ways – as a child of the social media age, he has to be the most scrutinised athlete in the history of sports, being in the public limelight ever since he was a junior in high school.
The crucial thing though is that he learned. All the greats do. They lose, they learn, adapt, triumph.
Kobe Bryant, whom Bayless would rightly perceive as the personification of “clutch”, shot three consecutive airballs in his first play-off series loss. His greatest rival to the title of being the greatest LA Laker ever, Magic Johnson, was for a time known as Tragic Johnson for missing a couple of crucial free-throws and committing a huge turnover in the 1984 NBA finals loss to Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Jordan himself realised after another loss to the tremendously physical Pistons in 1990 that he needed to bulk up while also empower his teammates more.
“I think losses make you stronger,” Roger Federer has said. “It’s important to learn from those mistakes and then become a better player. You work harder. A light goes up in your head: ‘You know what? I think I understand now what I need to improve.’”
James had such an epiphany after that 2011 finals loss to the Mavericks, radically changing his regimen, physically, technically, mentally. Since then on the eve of every postseason, he enters what he calls Zero Dark Thirty; he stays off social media, preferring to read up on American political history or The Hunger Games than find out the latest pop a Bayless is having at him. The result is the most astonishing six-season stretch by an individual player in NBA post-season history.
n this column’s eyes, Jordan will always be the Greatest of All Time for the simple reason he represented a quantum leap in not what just a basketball player but an athlete in an individual team sport could be.
But it is a testament to James that this season has confirmed James’ right to be in the discussion as the possible GOAT and almost certainly already one of the three greatest players to ever play the game, rivalling Jordan and Jabbar, and moving ahead of Johnson, Bird, Bryant.
At the start of the season James talked about his real competitor isn’t any current player but a “ghost in Chicago”. When on the eve of the play-offs he then said that he had nothing more to prove, it was viewed as inconsistent with his quote about ghosts. But it wasn’t.
The ghost of Jordan isn’t something to daunt him but to inspire him.
The same with these NBA play-offs. James has been phenomenal throughout the whole campaign, including in the opening two games of these finals. Not since the behemoth that’ was Wilt Chamberlain has a player averaged a triple double in the first two games of an NBA finals.
It won’t be enough. The next two best players on the planet happen to be playing for his current opponent.
If the tandem of Durant and Steph Curry stay together, along with other stellar players like Tristan Thompson and Draymond Green, it’s very possible James could keep reaching and losing the next couple of NBA finals as well and be left to ponder some more whether he’d have been better off losing somewhere earlier along the line. And no doubt the knockers will try to remember him most for losing more than he won against the Warriors rather than the fact he beat them at all to finally bring that title back to his people.